Bill Hicks died much too young at 32 in 1993. Today would have been his 50th birthday, and it’s easy to imagine him having much to say about both popular culture as well as the political climate of Occupy Wall Street and the GOP presidential field.
Swap out Debbie Gibson and Tiffany for Taylor Swift on his track, “We Live In A World,” off of 1990’s Dangerous and his points still ring true about listening to teenage white girls. On the track, “Ding Dong,” Hicks points out that America is only threatened by people we’ve sold arms to. See: Iraq. Hearing the subjects of some of his scorn in the early 1990s, and realizing that all of them are not only living, but also still thriving almost two decades later — the people didn’t listen to you, Bill! — but also, your message somehow still seems timely. When he suggests on “Fevered Eggs,” off of Rant in E Minor, that he’d like to pitch a CBS show to “hunt and kill Billy Ray Cyrus”…”and we’ll back in 95 with lets hunt and kill Michael Bolton” — you wonder what he’d make of Miley Cyrus. On “My Favorite New Kid,” he hopes that Donnie Wahlberg is the first member of New Kids on the Block to die, except he’s the one with a CBS show now.
Hicks was attacking Jay Leno before it became cliche for comedians to mock him, suggesting even 20 years ago that “he’s a company man until the bitter end.”
But when he’s not dropping names of celebrities of the 1990s, he often addressed larger targets and had marketers and advertisers squarely in his sights.
Not all audiences were onboard with Hicks while he lived. British audiences tended to give him a wider berth, and it would be a couple of Brits — Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas — who captured his essence in a thrilling documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story, which came out on DVD earlier this year. With the full cooperation of the Hicks family and his childhood friend, Dwight Slade, who started in stand-up with Hicks when they were just teens, Harlock and Thomas have a stunning amount of footage and equally thrilling animation to tell his story. The two-DVD set includes several hours of interviews and featurettes.
Of course, completists also will want to look into Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection, which includes two CDs of his stand-up, two DVDs of interviews and movies, a download card of music Hicks wrote and recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London, and a booklet of liner notes and tributes.
Like I said, not everybody was ready to hear what Hicks had to say, particularly in comedy clubs at the end of the comedy boom. In one track, Hicks adopts a Chinese voice to let the audience know that people don’t want to think or rock the boat; they just want to hear dick jokes and go home. So Hicks does have plenty of sexual material to please these people. But even then, it generally came back to a broader theme such as TV advertising and Christians, who say don’t think about sex, but be fruitful and multiply.
Since Hicks died in 1993, he has inspired many stand-up comedians.
So in his own way, he was fruitful and multiplied the concept of thought-provoking stand-up comedy. Even if he didn’t live to see it happen.
Note: Several screenings of the documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story, will take place this weekend in honor of what would have been his 50th birthday. Among them…
Friday, Dec. 16, 1pm: Fugard Theatre, Cape Town, South Africa
Friday & Saturday, Dec. 16 & 17, 10pm: Alamo Drafthouse Village, Austin TX
Friday, Dec. 16, 6pm: Brezza Italian Coffee House, Sheffield UK
Friday, Dec. 16, 11pm: Ninja Bachelor Party + Kevin Booth Q&A Comedy Store, LA
Saturday, Dec. 17, 2pm: Roxy Bar & Screen, London UK – with Steve Hicks
Saturday, Dec. 17, 11pm: BBC4 (aka the telly), London UK
Sunday, Dec. 18, 8:30pm: ABC2 (also aka the telly), Australia
You also can buy the documentary and essential collection via Amazon.